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Passion Based Learning

A Practical Way for Educators to Empower Learners

By Andi McNair, Digital Innovation Specialist, Education Service Center Region 12

Advancements in technology have altered the way growing minds learn today.  With an average student attention span of eight seconds and instant access to information, it is critical that their reality drives our approach for how we educate them, and not our perceptions or unwillingness to change.  Education Service Agencies (ESAs) can facilitate this paradigm shift in the way we educate young students through ongoing training opportunities, much like the passion-based learning work underway at Education Service Center (ESC) Region 12 in Waco, Texas.

“Increasing student achievement by impacting teacher effectiveness through evolving challenges remains the primary focus of education service centers,” Jerry Maze, Ed.D., Executive Director of ESC Region 12 said.  “ESC staff have the potential to empower educators to alter their mindset and design appropriate learning experiences for today’s youth.”   

Educators often struggle to implement strategies in the classroom that are applicable in the real world.   School does not often simulate real life, and therefore, we are seeing a disconnection between today’s learners and the classroom.  This generation of students learns by doing rather than listening. Therefore, classrooms should mirror the real world, creating a school experience that is very different from the classrooms of the past. The reality is that if the learning is not meaningful for students, it is a waste of the educator’s time and theirs.   Providing professional development for educators that addresses the meaningful use of technology and introduces innovative strategies like passion-based learning are both examples of how ESC Region 12 is bridging this gap.   

Passion-based learning is a learning experience that gives students an opportunity to learn content and standards through the application.  

Two girls

Students learn how to help others and work as a team by creating a nap mat for a Functional Academic Life Skills class.

Passion is defined as “a strong liking, desire for, or devotion to some activity, object, or concept” (Khabeb, 2017).   Learning based on one’s passions or interests makes learning relevant and allows the learner to make connections to life outside of the classroom.

Educators often ask students what they want to be when they grow up.   We begin asking in kindergarten and expect them to know the answer without exposure to the different options that exist.  The reality is that many learners have no idea what might be possible–even as they graduate from high school.  Therefore, students often respond with what is familiar or avoid answering.   Instead of asking what students want to be, teachers should be asking about student passions or interests.

While educators might not know what the future holds, they do know that students will need specific skills to be successful.  Specifically, those skills include collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity.   These skills, the 4 Cs, give the learners of today, opportunities to practice real-world skills while learning.  In doing so, they begin to see value in what they are learning, giving them a reason to engage and invest beyond merely being compliant or completing an assignment.  

Passion-based learning allows learners to practice these skills in real situations.  Instead of learning by completing a worksheet or recalling information that one can find through a Google search, this type of learning requires them to solve problems and think creatively about the world around them.   For example, instead of learning about area and perimeter on a worksheet, a student who is interested in architecture can be given the time to collaborate with an architect and design a house where these geometry concepts are critically important.     

Collaboration plays a vital role in passion-based learning.   

It is imperative that teachers know the difference between collaboration and group work.  Collaboration involves students working with their peers to discuss and solve a problem that may or may not have a correct answer.  Group work typically involves students working in groups to complete an assignment for the teacher.   While there may be a place for both in the classroom, it is essential that students see collaboration as a valuable way to gain input and feedback from their peers, while sharing their ideas as well.   

Communication is another skill that the learners of today must practice both inside and outside of the classroom.   Due to their instant access to social media and information on their devices, face-to-face communication is not as natural for them as it has been for past generations.  Often, students will text someone in the same room to avoid making eye contact.  Making eye contact, using non-verbal cues, and listening are soft skills that they need now and will undoubtedly need in the future.    

Designing authentic learning experiences that require learners to use these skills will help kids of all ages communicate more effectively with their peers, family and prospective employers.  While pursuing a passion, students should have the opportunity to connect and collaborate with outside experts.  

This experience gives them the chance to build and practice their communication skills.   

Fortunately, technology opens the door to connect learners with experts from anywhere at any time.   It is no longer necessary for them to connect with people in their local communities only.   While there is value in connecting with community members, the reality is that there might not be someone nearby with experience in that specific career or area of interest.   It might be necessary to connect with someone in another city, state, or even country. Using Skype, Google Hangouts, or Zoom, students can make those connections and learn from those who are most knowledgeable.  

Critical thinking is often a grey area in education.  Many educators struggle to provide experiences where the student can practice this skill.   Critical thinking is personal and requires the learner to take his or her thinking to another level.  This is hard to achieve when we only ask students to regurgitate information or reiterate strategies they practice repeatedly.   Instead, students need space to think critically about relevant topics on a local and global scale, while creating solutions.  This skill along with communicating, connecting and collaborating is happening all around them and should not stop when they walk into the classroom.  “As educators, we are no longer preparing students for traditional careers.   Instead, we are preparing them for jobs that do not even exist today,” said Chris Holecek, career and technology team leader for ESC Region 12.  

“I appreciate these different learning opportunities because we are unique individuals with unique interests and know that we will not be working in factories after graduation,” said Central Texas ninth-grader Maggie Maine.  

Genius Hour

Genius Hour: Student products vary from traditional presentations and video productions to tri-fold boards and coding with drones. Genius Hour allows students to work how they want with the topics they want; all while incorporating academic skills and real world issues.

One example of passion-based learning that has proven to be beneficial in area classrooms is Genius Hour.   Genius Hour is an instructional practice that gives learners an opportunity to think beyond the classroom.   The practice comes from Google’s own 20% policy, where employees use twenty percent of their time to work on something innovative in addition to their current duties. Tech Staff Developer, Speaker, and Education Author A.J. Juliani (2012) says the practice has been very successful in business practice and has been wildly successful in education practice. The idea behind the 20% policy is that if employees have opportunities to work on something that is interesting to them, productivity will improve.  Google has seen many great ideas develop from 20% time including Gmail and Google News.  Well-known educators like Angela Maiers, AJ Juliani, Denise Krebs, Gallit Zvi, Hugh McDonald, and Joy Kirr realized how beneficial this practice could be in the classroom how this type of experience could affect learners.  Genius Hour has grown and changed over the years, but educators are beginning to understand and use the process in many different ways to engage and empower today’s learners.  

Throughout the process of Genius Hour, students have opportunities to see things from different perspectives, develop solutions and justify their ideas.   The teacher asks students to consider, analyze, evaluate, and reflect upon a situation that they would like to see changed or a solution for a particular challenge or problem.   Working on a solution requires the student to think both critically and creatively to develop an idea that they can share with others.   In doing so, students begin to realize that they can create change and make an impact by thinking about the world and events around them.   They make connections between what they are learning and what is happening in the world.

“Genius Hour is student-driven! It gives my students the chance to not only explore what they find interesting but also practice what is important to them,” said Josh Porter, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher.  “They have the freedom to use their creative and critical academic gifts to make changes and learn new things, all while preparing for their future.”

From a personal perspective, I adopted Genius Hour in my classroom because I realized that the traditional instruction I provided was not meaningful for my learners.  Therefore, they were not making connections and remembering what I taught.  Instead, they were merely memorizing the information for the test–which is not learning.  I wanted my students to not just memorize and regurgitate–but to have a real understanding of the standards and concepts. After learning about Genius Hour, I realized they needed to be able to learn by doing and applying.  The application of the standards resulted in a deeper understanding and meaningful connections to the content.  

We often make assumptions about creativity in education.   

Student in front of green screen

Students develop their interests through the creation of products. These students created a moon scene while teaching about the NASA space suit.

As educators, we sometimes think that creativity belongs outside of the classroom.   It is easy to assume that this generation is less creative than previous generations because technology is easily accessible to them.  However, that technology provides limitless opportunities to conduct research, design and produce.   Providing students with opportunities that encourage and empower them to find and produce unique solutions, helps the students think creatively.  For example, high school teacher Josh Essary asked his students to create logos as part of a simulated graphic design business, which included students pairing up and interviewing teachers (their clients) about their business. After organizing and analyzing information, the students were asked to prepare design concepts and present solutions to their clients for feedback.  Students reflected on their experience and the input to refine their designs.  “This learning experience combined open-ended creation opportunities and authentic reflection, which resulted in students actively taking responsibility for their education,” Essary said.  

Within Genius Hour, students have opportunities to use their passions to design creative solutions and prototypes that will make an impact.   As a result, they begin to make the connections that help them understand that both critical and creative thinking are necessary to create solutions and drive change.   When this connection occurs, learners begin to see the value in what they are learning and find ways to use that learning to move forward with their projects.

One example of using this model is where elementary students worked on writing skills and writing styles through an initiative to help the local animal shelter increase pet adoptions. The teacher focused on providing an assignment with purpose, and students found the work exciting because they were passionate about saving more pets.

“I tell my teachers that if we can hook the students’ interests and let them experience success quickly, they often will plug in for the rest of the lesson,” said Dr.  Joe Kucera, Lorena ISD Superintendent.  Dr. Kucera is an example of the leadership support required to implement Passion-based learning successfully.

While most educators agree that these skills are important and should be a priority in education, it is easy to argue that there is not enough time to make them a priority while teaching standards and test-taking strategies.   However, we must stop seeing these practices as “one more task” and instead, see them as an opportunity to teach the standards innovatively.   To help educators understand that this type of learning is not a passing phase or an increase of duties, Education Service Center (ESC) staff have the opportunity to shift learning from something that happens to them in professional development to something that they experience.  Once teachers experience new learning, they begin to realize the value that it can have in their classrooms.   

Making learning personal and relevant

Female students sitting on the floor

Produce and Share: Student entrepreneurs create nail designs for a nail salon business they invented. They also learn about strategies to market and advertise their business.

It is crucial to help educators realize that when learning is personal and relevant, learners are much more likely to want to participate and apply their knowledge and skills.  Passion-based learning is personal learning at its best.  It allows students to take the time to explore what they are passionate about and then find ways to turn that passion into a project.   If this generation of learners cannot make connections to their learning, they will not see a reason to invest.   With a lack of connection to many of the topics, we are teaching in the classroom, students lose interest, disengage and become apathetic about their learning.   One high school student shares that his peers can be very indifferent about their education because they often do not see how it applies to the real world.

As providers of professional development for teachers, we must encourage teachers to help their learners make connections and help them find ways to get to know their students.   Knowing each learner makes it easier for educators to connect the lesson material to the student’s interests.   Many connections are possible by simply watching and talking to a student.  In doing so, educators will gain important insights that result in meaningful connections for individuals, rather than the one-size-fits-all approach, which does not work in classrooms today. “I agree that making connections to the real world is so important for today’s students, said Katy Lynch, a fourth-grade teacher for Axtell ISD.  “When they connect, they learn and want to carry that knowledge forward.”

One example of helping students make connections to their learning involved Lynch sharing videos of kids who are changing their community or even the world.  After sharing the videos, she asked her students to think about what they could do as fellow peers.  Students began discussing and narrowing down topics. The students decided to research the local family shelter services and volunteer program.  The students discussed the information and decided to create welcome notes and individual letters for shelter staff to give to the kids who come to the shelter.  “This form of instruction impacts the social and emotional well-being of kids,” said Jeni Janek, counselor specialist for ESC Region 12.  “If they can latch on to what they are passionate about, much of their energy will go there, and that is a win-win for everyone!”

Teachers must help students find their passions.

Next, teachers must help students find their passions.   Finding a student’s passion is sometimes as easy as listening to and talking with him or her.   On the other hand, students often do not know how to respond when others ask about their interests and passions.  This may be a new question to them and it requires them to understand themselves on a deeper level.  

Unfortunately, we have created students who know how to play the school game and who are often afraid to make mistakes.  They have learned to be compliant and answer questions using the information that the teacher provides.  However, they are aware that if they do not answer the question, they will eventually receive an answer.  Because they are compliant, they are often not willing to take risks. We must help them understand that failure is an opportunity to learn and grow.   When seen as such, it merely becomes part of the learning process.  

Asking students about their interests and what they want to learn may make them uncomfortable because we are changing the school game.   We are giving them complete ownership of their learning and making them responsible for how they experience learning.   When the educator asks students to own their learning, a shift begins to happen.  While the shift from compliance to empowerment can be uncomfortable, it is definitely worth the effort from both the educator and the learner.

“Any instructional delivery method that puts voice and choice into the student’s classroom experience and that allows the student to be involved in their learning success under the facilitation of the teacher is an example of modern learning,” said Judy York, education specialist/coordinator for ESC Region 12.  “This type of learning mirrors the real world where industry parameters require individuals to be team players, communicate and be creative to solve problems.”

Students today enjoy communicating and sharing experiences through technology.  Asking students to share their work with others is difficult for many educators.  However, this generation of learners is very familiar with having an authentic audience and immediate feedback.  Many of them share almost everything that they do on social media, instant messaging, and videos on YouTube, all of which document their experiences.  

Because students often have immediate access to an authentic audience, it is often not meaningful for them to create or design something that only the teacher will see.  

Student Voice & Choice: students on a panel share what they like about school, how they learn best, and what type of support helps them through a series of moderated questions.

Popular education presenter and author Rushton Hurley, said it best, “If students are sharing their work with the world, they want it to be good.  If they are sharing it with you, they want it to be good enough” (Couros, 2016).  

If we want quality work from learners, we must begin to give them reasons to produce quality work.  Passion projects are perfect for sharing since students are usually proud of their project and want to share.  In doing so, educators begin to help students learn how to use social media to promote themselves, rather than create a negative digital footprint that may affect them adversely later in life.

Many educators are hesitant to share student work online because they are fearful of giving social media any place in their classroom.   It is important for ESC trainers to help teachers understand that use of social media in the classroom provides a platform for supporting students in the appropriate use of current technology and the power they have to connect with the world, while also understanding that with great power comes great responsibility.   Passion-based learning opens the door to introduce and encourage digital citizenship in a very authentic way.   

Educators are in the perfect position to guide students to become digital leaders by teaching digital citizenship and allowing them to promote their work and themselves positively on social media.  Through this effort, students will begin to see social media as a powerful way to connect, learn and collaborate for meaningful purposes and work.   We must help school leaders and educators alleviate the fear by providing tools and strategies to help them understand not only the power of social media but also how students can use it to influence others positively.    

Reflection is imperative throughout the Genius Hour process and should be a priority in every classroom.   If educators do not understand the importance of reflection, they are missing the opportunities for learners to make connections.   As students experience passion-based learning, educators should create opportunities for reflection as often as possible.  When students reflect, they make connections between what they are learning and the purpose or why behind it.   Opportunities to reflect include peer-to-peer conversation, reporting out, and asking students to blog and/or record short videos to share their experiences.

In conclusion, passion-based learning involves students identifying their passions, communicating and collaborating with an outside expert, sharing their work with an authentic audience and reflecting on making connections and learning the standards through application. Educators across the world are finding ways to make time for their learners to pursue their passions during the school day.  In doing so, they are seeing that when given time to pursue their passions, students become more productive in other areas.  During the time that students are pursuing their passions, there are often fewer behavior issues because students are playing an active role in their own learning.

Takeaways for Education Service Agencies

First, it is important that ESA leaders empower and urge their staff to adopt innovative practices and model them in every presentation, coaching session, and customized training in schools. For staff to do this, they need to know that leaders will support them testing new methods, taking risks, and gaining experience through their professional development.

This professional development includes visiting and collaborating with teachers who use Passion-based learning in their classrooms across the nation. While seeing the practice in action, specialists hear about and record stories about the impact on student engagement. The examples help presenters explain what the learning looks like to their colleagues and training participants.  Just as teachers need to design learning experiences for their students, they too need to see ESA staff modeling the practice in in their own professional development practices.

There is not a sequential, orderly way to adopt this professional development practice because it is moving away from using the traditional approach of doing what we have always done in the past when it comes to instruction–whether it is for K-12 students or teaching adult learners. Inquiry-based learning presentations, such as passion-based learning ones are steadily growing in popularity at education conferences, and especially at conferences that focus on using innovative strategies and technology for effective instruction. Teachers are either beginning to see the need for this type of learning, or they are eagerly searching for innovative practices to implement and excite their learners.

The interest and excitement are growing in Central Texas where ESC Region 12 staff is training all staff from several school districts on how to incorporate passion-based learning into their instruction and classroom projects. These presentations include methods for helping the educators understand the why behind the practice and the strategies on how to implement the practices successfully. In recent years, ESC Region 12 added a digital innovation team of teachers, all who have experience using innovative models in the classroom. This team works across departments and is now developing the coaching and follow-up support schools will need to keep the momentum going behind passion-based learning.  

Our updated professional development blended model focuses on providing relevant training that teachers may begin using immediately in their classrooms. This blended model will allow teachers to have elements of choice and the opportunity to share their practices following the professional development.

Whether it is incorporating Genius Hour or another model of inquiry-based learning, ESC Region 12 is committed to incorporating the 4Cs into every training and coaching session across all subjects and grade levels. This commitment has grown through many hours of research for modern teaching strategies and through collaboration between department leaders and their teams. The monthly collaboration meetings have led to specialists co-presenting and crossing over to many other areas and grade levels to offer a systemic approach to the schools we serve.

Communicating these changes and their results both internally and externally have also been an essential part of the overall practice. Other practices include incorporating student panels into professional development conferences, offering weekly or monthly Twitter chats, updates through Facebook Live and requesting reflection data from past participants that are now using innovative strategies in their classrooms. Keeping the conversation current and providing opportunities for collaboration is important to the overall implementation of these practices.

As education service agencies, it is vital to help educators find innovative solutions for engaging and empowering learners.  It begins by engaging students through a relevant learning experience and then empowering them to apply their learning.  Passion-based learning is one way to make this happen in the classroom, while still addressing the standards.  More than ever before, it is crucial that we give educators practical ways to design meaningful learning experiences that will result in lifelong learners who apply their learning beyond a worksheet or test.

Images are courtesy of Robinson ISD, Belton ISD and ESC Region 12.  

Andi McNair, Digital Innovation Specialist, Education Service Center Region 12

She can be reached by phone at 254.297.1291, by email at and on

Twitter @mcnairan3.  


Couros, G. (2016, March 17).  The (nearly) invisible portfolio. The Principal of Change.   Retrieved from:

Juliani, J. (2012).  The 20% project (like Google) in my class.  Retrieved from:

Khabeb, A. (2017, December 31).  Passion that chooses us. Retrieved from:


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